What is beauty? Is it mere aesthetics, captured simply by wealthy people drifting about and enjoying all their lifestyle has to offer? Does art alone draw people toward higher purpose? Or is beauty representative of something else, something beyond the mundane world we see around us that gives it all a higher purpose? These are the questions that underlie Paolo Sorrentino’s film The Great Beauty (La grande belezza), the winner of the 2013 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.
The Great Beauty is visually stunning from start to finish, without a wasted frame. The film is a love affair with a city, a dreamlike vision that sets Rome on a pedestal. The real Rome, visitors can attest, is impressive but not nearly as impeccable and clean. And yet it all works, and the flood of color toys with nostalgia, and even the critiques are those of one who knows it dearly. At one point, the protagonist notes that only tourists can see Rome with fresh eyes, something all to resonant for a kid who went to Rome once, but only for a day; one beautifully jam-packed day under a radiant July sun in which I was led about by an exceptionally attractive tour guide.
The film follows Jep Gambardella, a writer who wrote one great book forty years prior and has been resting on his laurels ever since. He lives in Dionysian opulence, stumbling from party to party dancing with beautiful people and rocking one superb suit after another. He arches his eyebrows at all the absurdity around him, at times even blasts the emptiness of his friends in Roman high society, but he is beholden to his life of excess, and resumes the revelry every night. He’s made himself the king of Rome, but as he ages, his throne seems increasingly lonely.
The Great Beauty is absolutely vicious in its takedown of Jep’s fellow travelers. In the most enjoyable scene, Jep makes short work of a vacuous performance artist, an all too accurate skewering of clueless contemporary art. He also unleashes a vicious takedown of the communist socialite whose “sacrifices” for her family are nothing more than self-serving lies: she is no better than any of these jaded souls partying the night away. At times these Roman elites are downright sad, as in the suicidal mania of Andrea and the young girl forced by her parents to smear paint about for the amusement of the crowd. And there’s the cardinal in line for the papacy, who prefers quoting his recipe book to scripture. Only the dwarf publisher, consigned to an absurd body, comes across as someone who has genuinely earned her high society stature.
By the end, though, a few figures start to poke out above the bitter takedowns. News of an old lover’s death starts to stir a few memories, and ever-dangerous nostalgia makes its move. Jep’s “friend” Romano, a hapless writer there mostly as an object of scorn, suddenly decides to leave Rome and head back to his anonymous hometown. For the first time, Jep’s reaction to an event goes beyond mild bemusement: suddenly, his world faces disruption. And then there is the matter of the Santa Maria, the Mother Teresa figure who comes to visit Rome at the end of the film. She, too, is a hyperbolic caricature, but her ascetic life is about the only one in the film that witnesses any greater beauty. At the end, she climbs a stair to an altar on her knees and looks up in pure wonder, and suddenly one starts to wonder if sleeping on cardboard and serving the Malian poor for 22 hours a day at age 104 is indeed the road to enlightenment.
Santa Maria stiffs Jep when he tries to interview her, instead settling for a night on his floor and some festivities with her flock of flamingoes before she asks the same damn question that everyone else asks him: why didn’t he write another book? Because he couldn’t find the great beauty, he replies, and Santa Maria orders him to remember his roots. Jep flashes back to a night on the beach with the girl who got away. She flashes her breasts at him, but what lingers is the tantalizing, mysterious look on her face. The wonder returns, Jep finds his beauty, and he can begin to write again.
The epiphany of beauty leaves one question unresolved: is Jep’s nostalgia for a cute girl on the same level as the crawling Santa Maria, the mere fact of wonder enough to give life meaning? Are all these Roman partiers saved if they can simply recall some moment of past beauty that gives them pause? Or is there still a moral order beyond this relativist ability to marvel? My vote, to no one’s surprise, is with the latter: those fleeting moments of great beauty are windows unto eternity, but they are not themselves eternity. Instead, they fuel the mind, and from there, the author must write his own story, remembering his roots and placing his narrative within the thousands of others that float past it down the streets of Rome or along the Tiber.
Sorrentino doesn’t show us whether or not Jep understands this, but at least he has some chance. It’s no coincidence that the hauntingly magnificent closing theme is named “Beatitude,” as it brings together the faith that has sustained Rome and opens the door to transcendence. It lilts down the Tiber and lingers for days beyond, and encapsulates the human core of Rome: at times tortured, burdened with the history of Western civilization in all its contradictions, but capable of stunning beauty, both in the facades it puts up and in the details deeper inside. Both the city and the man are along the road to truth, and while they may not get there, they at least have some notion of how to find their way.